A new generation of Jewish spiritual leaders confronts gender, identity
Generation nextNew rabbis and cantors confront today's challenges

A new generation of Jewish spiritual leaders confronts gender, identity

"If I had a crystal ball, I would say that in the next 50 years, Jewish leadership will be a majority/minority situation."

The Talmud has 8 different genders. Something with which today's Jewish spiritual leaders are grappling. "The volumes of the first edition of the Bomberg Talmud." Photo by Tom Thompson, courtesy of flickr.com.
The Talmud has 8 different genders. Something with which today's Jewish spiritual leaders are grappling. "The volumes of the first edition of the Bomberg Talmud." Photo by Tom Thompson, courtesy of flickr.com.

If marriage and assimilation were prime issues of struggle and concern for Jewish spiritual leaders in the last half of the 20th century, gender and identity might mark the next proving ground for a new generation of Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders.

“We’re always looking at inclusivity in the way that we use our language,” Temple Sinai Cantor David Reinwald said, referring to the changes spiritual leaders have begun addressing in the Reform movement over the last half-century or so.

Reinwald said that when he celebrated his bar mitzvah, the Avot v’Imahot (opening blessing) at his synagogue didn’t include the matriarchs. By the time his sister became a bat mitzvah just a few years later, that had changed. In the Conservative movement, the female names were included in the last decade of the 20th century.

“Inclusivity,” Reinwald said, “is on a spectrum that I think is beyond whatever we imagined, and sometimes the language we use is non-inclusive, with no intention of doing that.”

B’nai mitzvah, simchat mitzvah … b’mitzvah?
As the next generation of Jewish spiritual leaders faces opportunities and challenges to create more inclusive communities, gender and identity are at the forefront of debate. In Pittsburgh, cantors and rabbis have begun to confront these issues. For some, that begins by rethinking the ritual that celebrates a child coming of age in the community.

“I think one of the most prominent things happening today is the language surrounding b’nai mitzvah,” Reinwald said. “There’s a lot of directions suggested in terms of language. Just the overall general term might go away. We’ve used b’mitzvah, beit mitzvah, simchat mitzvah — we’ve used things we’ve invented ourselves.”

For Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman, the discussion is personal.

Goodman, the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation, has a child who identifies as nonbinary. The family is starting the b’nai mitzvah process.

“Beth Shalom has never had language for a non-gendered b’nai mitzvah ceremony,” Goodman said. “There are a few terms that are becoming popular in the Jewish community for these ceremonies, but it’s a serious, ritual-level decision that we have to make coming up.”

The congregation, he said, recently decided how to call someone who is nonbinary to the Torah.

“Those little moments are coming fast and furious and all the time now,” Goodman said. “We’ve lived in a very binary world, and we’ve got to be contemporary and relevant for everyone that wants to access Judaism.”

A majority/minority
Reform congregation Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ new cantor, Kalix Jacobson, identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they.”

Jacobson is part of the Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music’s first class to include transgender or nonbinary students. Their class included three gender-expansive students to be ordained. All three have found employment, but Jacobson was the first to sign a contract, making their hire at the Mt. Lebanon synagogue historic.

Jacobson believes that Jewish institutions are on the precipice of change.

“While we’re the only ones in our cantorial program, there is one at JTS (the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary). Next year, seven rabbis who are transgender or nonbinary will be ordained,” Jacobson said.

No official numbers track the number of transgender and nonbinary clergy and would-be clergy across the movement, Jacobson said, but they are part of a group chat that includes 20 members at HUC alone.

“There has been a shift from a male-dominated industry to a female-dominated industry, and if I had a crystal ball, I would say that in the next 50 years, Jewish leadership will be a majority/minority situation — almost that it will be more LGBT people on the pulpit and in positions of leadership,” Jacobson said. “That’s just from my own experience.”

Cantor Jill Abramson, the director of HUC’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, said that while she isn’t sure of the number of non-binary or LGBTQ students at the school, she is sure of the support they receive.

“I can tell you that we are excited to and proud of our efforts to welcome, affirm and celebrate cantors of non-dominate identities,” she said. “We are eager to support all of our students in their development to lead our congregations and movements.”

In fact, Abramson said, her role is proof of the continued evolution at HUC. She is the first female head of the cantorial school.

“More and more women, more and more folks with non-dominant identities are assuming leadership roles, and it’s exciting for the movement because it centers voices that have previously been unheard or underrepresented,” she said.

Rabbi Lonnie Kleinman is the associate director of education and training for Keshet, a national organization that, according to its website, works for the full equality of all LGBTQ Jews and their families in Jewish life. She said there is anecdotal evidence to support Jacobson’s assertions.

“There are more folks that are coming to the rabbinate, to the spiritual care and cantorial care areas that are LGBTQ,” Kleinman said. “I think that is because, as it is more accepted and people tend to be exploring their identities, the overlap with folks in the spiritual realm is really great. I think in a lot of ways that overlap has always been there but now that it’s been publicly affirmed, a lot of people feel safer to approach that sort of job.”

A gendered language
For some people, Hebrew presents a challenge that needs to be addressed by the new generation of spiritual leaders. The Northern Semitic language in the Torah was used as least as far back as the Sixth century B.C.E., with its roots going as far back as the 10th century B.C.E. It is a gendered language that can cause challenges as English moves away from traditional pronouns.

Cantor Toby Glasser was recently hired by Rodef Shalom Congregation, a Reform congregation in Shadyside. He said gendered language is just one challenge and Judaism has always been stronger than its barriers — pointing to the Torah’s lack of acceptance of homosexuality.

“We’ve found ways to challenge our texts and read against our texts,” he said. “I think that’s something really exciting that we do.”

We must, Glasser said, confront the fact that Hebrew is a gendered language, and that the Torah was written by men.
Temple Emanuel Rabbi Aaron Meyer said that we’ve mistakenly long identified Hebrew as a bilingual possibility for the majority of the American Jewish community.

Hebrew, he said, should instead be taught as a “heritage language,” one that includes opportunities to engage in the Jewish tradition of prayer. Meyer believes that there will be increased opportunities to provide individuals with a greater variety of choices to find identification.

“I don’t know if we’ll see a switch from the gendered language that has existed in Hebrew to a nonbinary exclusive use of the language in American synagogues,” he said.

Jacobson said that for a long time, the Union prayer books used by American Reform congregations didn’t use Hebrew. All of the prayers, they noted, including the Shema, were in English.

Debbie Freidman, Jacobson said, revitalized Hebrew in Reform synagogues.

“There is a challenge of inherent gendered-ness in Hebrew,” Jacobson said, “but when we talk about God, we use both sets of binary pronouns.”

For Jacobson, the real challenge is in the English readings, which they said are “incredibly binary.”

“I feel like American Jews are more likely to have a reaction to that,” Jacobson said, “because so many of us are not at a conversational level in Hebrew. I think it’s a misnomer to focus primarily on how Hebrew is structured, but actually look at what the prayers in our native languages are saying because that is the root of Reform Judaism.”

New ways of living our values
Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Daniel Fellman said that issues about gender and identity are part of the core Jewish values of acceptance and equality.

“There was a time when the Reform movement was deeply focused on civil rights because that was the major issue of the day,” he said. “It’s not that we’re less focused on civil rights now. It’s that we’re living in a time where we’re understanding gendered and non-gendered folks and their rights in new ways.”

That transformation, he said, isn’t new but does echo events like the Supreme Court’s recognition of gay marriage and the White House being lit in rainbow colors.

“The synagogue,” he said, “needs to reflect our new understandings and our new ways of living the values that have united us for millennia.”

Keshet’s Kleinman said the values that Fellman mentioned go back to the Torah and the creation story.

“There is a midrash that essentially says God created the first being male and female,” she said. “In our text, there is a lot of play with gender. If you look at the Talmud, it names eight different genders, so this is something beyond a modern phenomenon and dates back to a time before we gendered people male or female, or had really binary ways of understanding.”

The Jewish tradition, she said, has deep ways of thinking and talking about both gender and sexuality.

Rabbi Yitzi Genack, of the Orthodox Shaare Torah, has a simple way of looking at the congregation’s needs regarding gender.
“At Shaare Torah, there is a very diverse religious ceremony,” he said. “Engaging and elevating that community of individuals is something we have to continue to work on. It’s a diverse community, as are many other religious communities around the country and world. We have to continue to engage it.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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